Saturday, July 23, 2011

Some fragmentary pipe fiction

I thought I'd post something a little different in honor of reaching 50 followers. Back when I used to sell lots of refurbished pipes on eBay, at one point I got bored with writing dry, unimaginative descriptions of the pipes I was selling, and this happened. Someone found the auction and posted a link on alt.smokers.pipes, and it got the most traffic of any auction I ever held. The auction was, of course, for a Falcon. I think it sold for $8.

It had been a slow day and a slower night. I locked up the office and in the chill of the sunset walked down the block to a low-slung bar, the kind where you have to duck your head to go through the door. The kind where drinking is mandatory and smoking is recommended. The kind that has every song the Texas Tornados ever recorded in their jukebox. That kind of bar.

I chose a stool near the back where a couple of old guys were playing backgammon and talking in Spanish. I tried eavesdropping, and understood just enough to know they weren't talking about much of anything in particular. So I gave up and stopped sipping a lukewarm whiskey long enough to pack my pipe. Like I said, it was a slow night, so I took my time, sizing it up, tapping the bowl to settle the leaves, anything to kill some time. I finally decided it was worth putting a match to, and after the smoke settled around me I realized I had company.

I had seen her around a few times, and seen her kind a million times. She had an off-black coat slung over a dress that once might have been red, and once had probably fit better. She had eyes as blue and faded as pipe smoke and hair of pale auburn, the color of a well-stained and well-worn briar.

"I like a man with a pipe," she said.

I don't know what brought her to my corner of the bar that night. Maybe it was the smell of my pipe. I puffed a wreath of smoke that smelled like some kind of antediluvian fruit fermenting on the bottom of a Louisiana bayou on a hot August night. Just the way I liked it.

"You should see my Kaywoodie," I said back.

"Oh," she touched the rim of my glass with a finger, "Is that what they're calling it these days?"

"So what brings you out on a night like this?" I asked. It was cold out there, cold enough to make the dogs sleep with the cows.

" know." She touched my pipe with a fingertip and pulled back quick, but not too quick. "It's hot," she said.

Yeah, I knew what she was selling, but I wasn't buying. I offered to buy her a drink. Whatever you're having, she said.

So I bought her a straight bourbon in an old-fashioned, and she sipped it long and slow, making it last. We talked about the weather, we talked about whiskey, we talked about the latest war. We talked about nothing.

"So what's your name, anyway?" she finally said.

"Most folks just call me Falcon."

"Oh? Are you a hunter, Falcon?"

"Sometimes." I grinned. "But not tonight."

She finished her whiskey, polishing off the last drop without even tilting her head back. Just like a real lady. Or just like someone who had a lot of practice with finishing off glasses of whiskey.

"See you around, Falcon." She sidled across the room. I glanced at her once as she walked away, then shook my head. I was saving myself for a one-night-stand that wouldn't cost me anything in the morning.

She sat down in a booth with some other guy, another pipe smoker. I had never seen him before but I wasn't in the mood to pay attention anyway. A few minutes later they left. I saw the soft silvery glint of aluminum in front of his face as he ducked his head to go out the door. It was the last time I saw her alive.

* * * * *

McCloskey was an okay guy, for a cop. Now and then he'd steer a case my way. Now and then I'd get some information for him, the kind of information that's hard for cops to get, but not quite so hard for a P.I. who wasn't too particular about the rules. So when he called me before sunrise the next morning I listened instead of just hanging up.

"Meet me at the county morgue," he said, without much of an explanation.

"What's in it for me?" I wanted to know.

"Jail time, maybe," he answered shortly. "Or maybe just something to keep you from getting too bored."

Jail time, okay. I figured the morgue was as good a place as any to fight a hangover, so I said I'd be right there.

McCloskey didn't say much at the morgue. He never said much anywhere. He pulled open the drawer and flipped back the sheet. "You seen her before?"

There she was, more relaxed in death but yeah, I knew her. In the harsh florescent light of the morgue, and in spite of the bruises around her throat, I realized that once, a long time ago, she had probably been a real knock-out. And longer ago than that, she may have even been pretty.

"Yeah, I've seen her."

"We got a witness says you were with her at Cantina del Alamos last night."

"Yeah, we chatted," I answered. "Bought her a drink. So?"

"Just following the trail," he said. "Last person to see her alive, and all that."

I knew the routine. I also knew that I wasn't the last one to see her alive, and told him so.

"Can you describe him?"

"Sure. Average height. Average build. Wore a coat and hat."

"Gotcha. A real stand-out. Nothing else?"

"Only one thing," I added. "He smoked a Falcon--it's a pipe with an aluminum stem and a briar bowl."

He let me go then, with the standard warnings not to leave town and so forth. Right. Like I had anywhere else to go.

On my way back to the office I stopped at the tobacconist and spent my lunch money on a tin of Escudo. I needed cheering up.

1 comment:

  1. Yo fui testigo de lo que sucedió aquella noche.
    Soy uno de los viejos que jugaban Backgammon.
    Escribo estas líneas mientras fumo SG Squadron Leader en mi Falcon.
    Exelente blog, Alan.